This will be, without a doubt, one of the hardest posts I will ever write.
The reasons for this are complicated, and I will not dwell on those complications. I will simply say that to write about this puts on full display all of my deepest fears, my largest failures, and my greatest hope for improvement. And while I value intimacy and appreciate human vulnerability, I recognize how hard those things can be to show to the world. This is me at my most vulnerable.
Why would a person who has a disorder which makes relationships turbulent, often unstable, and who can bounce between fears of intimacy and personal envelopment willingly enter into an arrangement where they will have multiple relationships? If relationships can be so difficult, then why would a borderline be polyamorous?
Why might borderlines become polyamorous?
Well, there are the actual reasons, and there may be a plethora of reasons people might give which would act as criticisms. I cannot predict what those accusations and guesses might be, but here are a couple which come to mind when I think about this.
Some might postulate that borderlines might be attracted to polyamory because the fear of intimacy would push a person towards a relationship structure where the “true intimacy” of monogamy is absent. One can achieve validation, from multiple sources, while not being subject to too much intimacy, due to having to divide up your time.
This, of course, implies that true intimacy is not possible within polyamory, or is at least disadvantaged by it by spreading around the intimacy in a way that is detrimental to any specific relationship. This assumption is unwarranted, and thus the previous argument would be a red herring, if used. The truth is that in many ways polyamory can be a gateway to increased intimacy, honesty, and vulnerability for partners.
Some might argue that it is because of the impulsiveness of borderlines that polyamory looks inviting. Since, some may say, we borderlines often yearn for validation, intimacy, and often try to fill in the holes of emptiness with things like drugs, gambling, or promiscuity, polyamory might be seen as a more acceptable alternative to those extremes; as a way of compromising with our impulsiveness and finding a more acceptable outlet for our desire to get our rocks off. I say more acceptable, because to some people, cheating is considered more acceptable than non-monogamy.
And I cannot deny that this might be a factor for some people who are both borderlines and polyamorous. This is a question I have wrestled with for a long time, and I am confident that my motivations for being polyamorous are (at least mostly) about what makes polyamory great, rather than what makes me impulsive. But if I said that I never pursued any relationship out of at least some impulsiveness, I’d be lying.
Degrees, intimacy, and timing
Personality disorders do not merely bring in sets of foreign behaviors which no neuro-typical people could display and which cause havoc on the normal world blind-sided. Things like feelings of emptiness, fear of abandonment, and complications with intimacy in relationships are fairly common among most people. What makes someone a borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, or anti-social (staying within the realm of dramatic/emotional personality disorders) is the degree to which normal human behaviors begin to have more influence over someone’s behavior. It’s about proportions, degrees, and manageability. Many of the struggles I talk about here will sound familiar to most people, although the degree may be different.
Many people have issues with intimacy. These issues play themselves out as (in some cases) different needs and wants which effect different people in a variety of ways. For example, a person may need attention while another does not want to give it just now, or at least in that way. This may either cause an argument, cold distance, or a conversation which brings understanding and increased intimacy.
As we navigate the world, we meet people we want differing levels of intimacy from, and sometimes we might meet 2, 3 or more people who fit us in ways which make us want to develop intimacy (of varying kinds) with all of them. Our cultural expectations (as they are now) generally lean towards choosing one of these people to be our sexual, romantic, and potentially marital partner. The reasons for this are complicated, and well beyond the scope of this post.
The point is that we all have complicated needs and wants around intimacy, and we all have differing levels of ability to manage those needs. A borderline has an issue with management of feelings, fears, etc in a way that those who are neuro-typical do not. But borderlines also can genuinely love, and love many times over! It may mean we have to work harder at communicating our difficulties, we may have more exposed complications with triggers, and we may be more likely to have turbulence within relationships, but the underlying impulses, needs, and potential for multiplied love is the same as anyone else.
From my own experience, I can say that communicating fears, needs, and desires is hard. I mean hard. No, I mean really fucking HARD. It’s easier when intimacy has been established, sure, but it feels nearly impossible when any dislike or emotional coldness is present in the person we have needs from. This inability has landed me in situations where I have seriously fucked up a relationship by getting myself in a situation where I’m so frustrated, so stressed out, and so anxious that nearly anything becomes a trigger and my partner feels the behavioral effects of that stress. This has happened many times over my life, and while it happens in slightly different ways each time, it’s the same fundamental problem; fear of intimacy and the complications which derive from that fear.
This fear of intimacy can come in all shapes and sizes and is especially rife in a poly context because it’s not always just about my partners where intimacy becomes a problem. That’s because the issues around intimacy are not limited to people we want romantic and/or sexual connections with.
Speaking for myself, I often desire some level of intimacy with all sorts of people, even people I have no sexual or romantic interest in. I want to be considered, loved, and validated by people in my life. Of course, this does not always happen, which is painful for me day-to-day, especially if the person not giving those things is around all the time. How well a person treats me can have a major effect on my mood, feelings of self-worth, and potential for sustained happiness.
Often, it’s an issue with a metamour (partner of a partner) or close friend of a partner. I’ve had wonderful metamours who I felt distant from despite their awesomeness, often because my issues arose at bad times and in bad ways which created embarrassment, distance, etc. I’ve had terrible metamours who I’ve been OK with, because our interactions happened when I was managing well. I’ve had what could have been good metamours who ended up as bad metamours because of terrible communication and incompatible issues. I’ve seen all sorts of complications with partners of partners, and how we relate is a mixture of how well we are both managing our respective issues.
And, of course, sometimes the issue is with the partner themselves. I’ve had partners who were no good for me, but I didn’t see it because the blinders were on (whether because the sex was amazing, issues hadn’t been exposed, etc). I’ve had wonderful partners who were good for me, but it didn’t work out simply because I simply fucked up. I’ve had partners who could have been great only if we had both been at better places, including mental health wise, when we were together. Ginny and I were talking about how badly matched we would have been if we had met a few years earlier.
How silly it is that this fact is true. If only I had met some partners later (or earlier, depending), perhaps things could have worked out. Timing can be crucial, in such cases. A few years, a few months, etc might make all the difference between a relationship that works or becomes nothing.
So, then why?
So, why would a borderline want to be polyamorous? I cannot speak for anyone else who deals with symptoms of BPD, and I would actually want to hear from people in a similar boat as me. The symptoms can vary in proportion and play out in very different ways, so there may be many reasons for and against being polyamorous if one struggles with such symptoms. Therefore, I can only talk about why I am, and want to remain polyamorous. For the philosophical reasons (which may, in the end, be rationalizations) you can check out the pages about polyamory and skepticism, properly applied. And while I still agree with those essays and find them valuable as resources for understanding intellectual motivations for being polyamorous, they are only part of the story.
Because intimacy is difficult for me, when I meet a person who I am able to be close with I want to allow myself to be unrestrained in how I can relate to them. I already have enough internal fears to maintain distance from people as it is, so I don’t like living in a world where external restrictions add anxiety and unnecessary rules to this set of issues. Our standard social expectations about relationships can be a little confining, promote jealousy (emotional affairs, for example), and cause any potential intimacy to become surreptitious.
Living in a such a way where I don’t need to be anxious about whether I’m crossing some invisible intimacy line with another person with whom I can talk, share physical contact, etc according to what we want to do (because, of course, consent matters) is hugely freeing and comfortable. Worrying about whether sharing emotional vulnerability with another person might be cheating is not comfortable.
And polyamory gives me the freedom to have relationships of all kinds with any number of people. Of course, I rarely meet someone who I am really interested in getting to know deeply, right? I rarely like people, or something. I could be described as a misanthrope, perhaps. Except none of that is true. Well, maybe the last one, sometimes. The truth is that I often want to get to know people. I often like people.
But I’m also often terrified of being rejected, dismissed, or attacked. I often run into people who are struggling with their own mental health issues which cause a conflict in behaviors and treatment (usually on both our parts) which cause tension and anxiety (at least for me). In some cases, my shyness and fear look like disinterest, when inside I desire emotional contact with people.
But when I meet someone with whom I click and share common desires and interests, it feels amazing. It is so hard to get past those fears of intimacy and open up, that when it does happen it’s really rewarding. When I do so, I’m able to pour them into me, and to give all the vulnerability, consideration, and care that I have into them. I’m so happy that I’m able to open up, let them see who I really am, and hope that they like who they see.
Which is all great, until the other side of that coin gets exposed, in time. And that’s where this gets really hard for me.
Here it goes…
Sometimes Dr. Jekyll, this Mister Hydes.
In an ideal world, reaching a place of trusting someone, loving them, and sharing all of your deepest fears and hopes would create a stable, loving, healthy relationship. And even among neuro-typical people, problems emerge. But there is something that happens inside this borderline’s head which goes beyond normal relationship problems. Sometimes I feel and act crazy. The result, with some people, is a loss of trust in me, them being hurt by me, and my feeling powerless against my own fear, loss of self-worth, and desperate levels of guilt and shame.
Which, of course, can lead to the other symptoms of BPD being significantly increased. My impulsiveness spikes (leading to poor decisions about communication). My radical mood swings (an issue we’ll get to in a later post) will become unstable and unpredictable, leading to long bouts of severe depression, self-harm, and to acute splitting (of a partner, a metamour, and of myself). My anger may spike and I may throw things, yell, and generally scream (metaphorically) for validation and affection (pretty much any time I lose it, that’s what I’m craving and needing).
It is at these moments where the fear of abandonment, the emptiness, and the desire for intimacy turn into a storm of terrifying rage, sadness, and paralyzing fear. And it is these moments which end relationships. It is these moments when I hurt the people I love, which are memories which will keep me awake at night long after the relationship is gone. It leads to self-hatred, lack of any self-worth, and to thoughts of (and sometimes actual) self harm.
When I feel the most depressed, I start to internalize many horrible things about myself which are not necessarily true. When i start to believe these things, I know I’m at my lowest.
How does this happen? How does the person who I want to be–the trusting, caring, gentle man who wants nothing more than to love and be loved–become this raging source of hurt, distrust, and distance? It’s because I hide.
It’s very difficult to communicate my needs, especially when they are emotional in nature and especially from people who respond badly to emotional vulnerability. And so I hide my vulnerability most of the time. I appear calm, quiet, and normal rather than the intensely emotional and vulnerable person I feel like inside. I cannot be the gentle, trusting, and caring person I want to be because I’m afraid. And because I’m afraid, I create distance. And because I create distance I feel unloved. And because I feel unloved the stress and anxiety lead to my inability to manage every-day emotions, needs, and wants. And because of that, I make poor, impulsive, decisions. I hurt people, lose the trust I wanted to earn, and relationships end.
And where I wanted friends, partners, and family, I create enemies. People I wanted to love then hate me, and this hatred reminds me of all the things I’m afraid of and I carry more and more pain to be vulnerable about with people in the future. It’s a kind of vicious cycle which I’m always aware of. And I don’t want any of it.
I can do better, but I need help along the way
As a person struggling with symptoms consistent with BPD, I need an emotionally open environment which allows for honesty, vulnerability, and support. Polyamory provides an ideal environment to achieve all of these things because it allows me to develop intimacy with many people. From a variety of loving partners, metamours, friends, and an extended network of people who are more likely to be emotionally open, I have the ability to choose my family or tribe in a way that will be healthy to me which the monogamous world does not as readily supply.
I love all of my partners (three, currently), and they all offer me different, wonderful, beautiful things. Also, my partners have great partners of their own, which adds to my environment in different ways. So long as I keep challenging myself to get better through reading, talking, and other therapies then the person I want to be will dominate among these people around me. And no matter what the depressed, self-hating, and terrified person I can be from time to time might believe, that part of me will not win.
So, back to the initial question: Why would I want to be polyamorous? Simple; I want to love and be loved, without deference to social expectations and norms. I am not defined by being a borderline. It is a diagnosis of current struggles which I will get past, and all of the voices of demonization about who I am. whether internal or external, will either have to remain silent or look foolish in time, because I have the capability to maintain healthy relationships with people I love.
My mistakes are lessons, and not definitions.
Just like everyone else
5 thoughts on “Instability Multiplied”
thank you for the courage to write this. I related so much to so many parts. I don’t have borderline disorder, but I do have mental illness. I have PTSD. And I relate to how hard intimacy is for me and vulnerability, and how being poly has helped me grow with this and provides me more ways to be intimate and to connect. I also DO NOT find poly in any way less intimate. It’s scary and difficult sometimes to be vulnerable like this and I feel at times like there is no safety net, but there’s something wonderful about that too. It’s good for me to accept a certain level of risk and to expand my comfort zone and to be forced to think about things and about connection in ways I wouldn’t normally. Thanks for writing this.
Love this post.
Thank you both.
seattlepolychick, it’s interesting, because in doing some reading I came across a couple instances of someone saying that PTSD and BPD are similar in lots of ways. One book referenced how some doctors (used to?) think that they are essentially the same thing, but I think that may not be the favored view of the community. I certainly have been experiencing PTSD-like symptoms in relation to some recent traumatic events.
In any case, I’m glad that some people are appreciating these posts. I often fear that I’m just screaming into the wind here.
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